Secretary of State and Vietnam War veteran John Kerry reflected upon Vietnam last week, and his insights followed a revealing fuss over his right to offer them.
The former Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate spoke Wednesday at a Vietnam symposium held at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. It was an appropriate location, as President Johnson's ambitious domestic agenda was largely destroyed by his controversial escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When the library was dedicated in 1971, President Johnson said he wanted the library to tell his entire story "with the bark off."
The controversy preceding the symposium testifies to the raw feelings connected to the war 41 years after its ignominious end with a chaotic airlift of personnel from the roof of the U.S. embassy. Senator Kerry returned from Vietnam as a decorated Navy lieutenant who had come to despise the war's execution and the baseless rationale for it. As a 27-year-old, he famously testified against the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, and some Vietnam veterans will never forgive him for his opposition, even though it was shared by other vets.
This became apparent during the senator's 2004 run for presidency when he was attacked by Vietnam vets whose claims about the senator's Vietnam service have since been thoroughly debunked. Many of the swift-boat (a Navy vessel employed in Vietnam) veterans had neither served with or anywhere near Mr. Kerry in Vietnam or had spoken well of him and his service before flip-flopping during the course of the campaign.
The damage was done, however. Mr. Kerry was smeared and his opponent, George W. Bush, who served in the National Guard (although records are sketchy), was portrayed as the fearless war hero who brought the nation into Iraq. President Bush's running mate, Vice President Dick Cheney, employed five deferments to avoid Vietnam service. (The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump received four deferments to elude fighting in Vietnam.) "Swiftboating" has entered the lexicon as the act of making exaggerated or unsubstantiated allegations designed to damage the credibility of a political candidate.
Like many who have actually served in combat, Secretary of State Kerry knows of the horrors of war and strives to spare others its misery. As a senator, he worked for 10 years to normalize relations with Vietnam. At the symposium in Austin, which was moderated by film-producer Ken Burns, who is making a documentary about the Vietnam War, Mr. Kerry said his war experiences are behind his determination as secretary of state to find diplomatic solutions to confrontations in the Middle East or with North Korea.
Senator Kerry wasn't the only symposium participant to attract protests. Some students at the University of Texas protested the appearance of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a key architect of the war. Unlike Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kissinger has plenty of answer for, particularly the secret and devastating decision to drag Cambodia into the war. Mr. Kissinger, who said in a speech at the symposium that divisions in the U.S. undermined the war effort, demonstrated that he hasn't learned much in 41 years but he had the right to be heard. People may not want to hear from Secretary of State Kissinger or Secretary of State Kerry, but attempts to squelch unpopular speech are decidedly un-American.
Later this month, Mr. Kerry will accompany President Obama to Hanoi for a summit with a nation that has emerged as an economic and strategic partner with the United States. Mr. Kerry said at the LBJ Presidential Library that he thinks often of Vietnam, especially of fellow crew members, many of whom remain in touch with him. Still, he managed to learn from the war to advance the cause of peace as a senator and as a secretary of state. His implacable enemies remain mired in the past, unable to learn and move forward.